As I discussed earlier this year with The Angel of History composer Matija Strnisa, the people behind a film’s music are regularly overlooked when it comes to dishing out credit for the end-product they contribute to. More often than not, we have a tendency to take a film’s soundtrack for granted – but if you’ve ever tried to watch a horror film on mute, you’ll be aware that without its score, the whole meaning and feeling of a movie can vanish.
Arguably, that point can’t be better illustrated than by Jaws. Famously, when John Williams suggested his theme would centre on just two notes, Steven Spielberg was more than a little sceptical. After initially having laughed as he though Williams was “putting me on,” Spielberg would later credit the music for “half of the success” of the overall film.
Having said there couldn’t be any better examples than Jaws, I thought I’d still sit down to craft a list of notable scores which have impacted me – and often elevated my memories of a film to a much higher plane than they might otherwise have remained at. So, in order to get the cogs of your own brain turning with regards to the soundtracks which might have had more of an impact on you than you realised, and celebrate some of the unsung heroes of cinema, here are my eight favourite film soundtracks.
- The Book of Eli
While it features a brilliantly unhinged performance from Gary Oldman, an impeccably measured one counter-balancing that from Denzel Washington, and an always-welcome cameo from Tom Waits, this post-apocalyptic Biblical epic was compromised by sloppy pacing and an eye-wateringly bad supporting role from Meg from Family Guy. With that being said, I would The Book of Eli is salvaged to some extent by Atticus Ross’ mesmerising score. The film’s leading theme Panoramic is particularly worthy of praise – lulling us into a kind of trans amid the strange new world we find ourselves in, quieting the objections our brains might otherwise have had to a disjointedly enjoyable movie.
- The Last of the Mohicans
It is well documented that the production of The Last of the Mohicans was a total mess – particularly the post-production process, during which director Michael Mann clashed with studio executives over the final edit, and its initial three-hour runtime. The hasty rehash of the film into its slimmer 112 minute cut left the film feeling spread a little thin across a number of scenes – but fortunately composer Trevor Jones was at hand to help paper over the cracks with a majestic score. Mann (who as we will see, favours a good synth) initially asked Jones to provide an electronic score for the film, but late in production, it was decided an orchestral score would be more appropriate for this historic epic. The constant re-cutting of the film meant music cues sometimes had to be rewritten several times to keep up with the new timings, meaning the score itself also features a few little errors (including a car alarm being briefly audible in one of the core tracks) – but as was the case with the film itself, Jones’ themes possess enough Celtic adrenaline to carry us through without caring.
As you can see from his time helming the likes of Thief or Miami Vice, Michael Mann loves a driving synth score. Of all his films, however, Manhunter’s score stands out most to me, due to the way it frames the characters and their actions. The characters who would later go on to be reinterpreted in various versions of Red Dragon come across as much more identifiably human thanks to the way the music swells to help characterise them. In particular, Will Graham is unrecognisable from later incarnations thanks to Michel Rubini’s score. Rather than the passive neurotic helplessly ensnared in Hannibal Lecter’s web of charisma in TV’s Hannibal, the driving synth score helps underline his dread that he may not be up to the task – either bringing a serial killer to justice, or protecting his own family – what comes through is that his determination to do the right thing and help people are greater than those fears. Graham’s Theme is the standout track as a result, working seamlessly in combination where he begins to fit the pieces of the puzzle together regarding the Tooth Fairy killer.
A colleague of mine approached me at work last week with the opening gambit, “I finally saw Highlander – I can’t believe it was that bad!” It was hard not to wince, because the over-ambitious cult classic has long been a pet favourite of mine, largely because of how many potentially good ideas the film manages to botch. Dated animation, hilarious one-liners and strange casting aside – including casting the film’s only Scottish actor as an Egyptian-Spaniard, while having to come up with in-story excuses for Christopher Lambert’s absurd French snarling – one thing which the film does legitimately nail is its soundtrack. According to director Russell Mulcahey, Queen had done a great score for Flash Gordon, so handed the iconic rockers a 20-minute reel of different scenes, and for some reason it captured their collective imagination. Having only expected the band to do one song, they produced an entire album, including Freddie Mercury’s Princes of the Universe, Brian May’s did Who Wants to Live Forever, and Roger Taylor’s did It’s a Kind of Magic. Each one of those tracks is a gem – and if it took a ‘bad’ film to inspire them, it’s surely a stretch to call it ‘bad’ at all anymore.
- 28 Days Later
When I first attempted to watch 28 Days Later I was 11, alone in a dark house. To paraphrase Cillian Murphy’s Jim, it was obviously a shit idea. I hid the tape away and refused to speak of it for another six years. The opening had been so exquisitely paced, building toward a brutal and horrendous crescendo, that I made it no further than the second scene. When I eventually did muster the courage to revisit it, however, I realised that so much of the film’s power resided with John Murphy’s patient indy-score. Many people suggested at the time that the zombies/infected being able to sprint was the key factor in just how frightening the film’s set-pieces were – but I’ve seen Zack Snyder’s butchering of Dawn of the Dead, and I promise you, without the clanging urgency of Murphy’s Brit-pop-style guitars, Danny Boyle’s film wouldn’t have been half as frightening. The track In the House, In a Heartbeat exemplifies this, building from lithe melodies and sweet chords through to the churning panic of its siren-like guitar riff, and back again. Thanks to Murphy’s efforts meanwhile, despite missing Boyle and writer Alex Garland, sequel 28 Weeks Later still managed to register as a decent second chapter.
- The Girl with all the Gifts
Another British zombie picture which leans heavily on its soundtrack is The Girl With all the Gifts – arguably to a much greater extent. The film came at the end of the ‘zombie renaissance’ of the late 20th and early 21st century – and despite being adapted by M. R. Carey from his innovative novel, it lacked a lot of the bite that the sudden and brutal films at the start of the wave had had. It might have been rather forgettable – particularly given the way its explanation for the virus had already been popularised by The Last of Us video game in 2013 – but for its score. Director Colm McCarthy – perhaps hindered by having only directed for television previously – opted not to do something more interesting with its post-apocalyptic vistas, or to find a more kinetic method of filming to create the frenetic urgency of Danny Boyle’s films. Fortunately, the mesmerising score by Utopia’s Cristobal Tapia de Veer builds enough of an atmosphere that you can forgive this. As with his previous work, the towering soundscape weaves organic sounds and strange synthetic thrums together, seamlessly blurring the lines between ‘reality’ and fiction, leaving us distrusting of what our senses are really telling us – and gifting the film a much more nervous atmosphere as a result.
One of my outright favourite films is Antonia Bird’s Ravenous, addressing of the conflict between capitalism and the American dream, and the ability of humanity to live peacefully alongside nature, through the lens of frontier cannibalism. While it is a wonderfully quirky fever-dream of a film from top to tail, however, it is Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman’s score that provides the chilli heat which can unite even the most discordant ingredients on a plate of food. Like the broader film, it embodies a split-personality. At times it brings up notions of the majesty of nature, the beauty of a pristine world unsullied as yet by the steady march of manifest destiny – only to instantly lapse into a sordid and bawdy saxophone solo as the insatiable urges of a nascent capitalism burst onto the scene. This dual-persona was due to the fact it was written and performed by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman separately. According to Nyman, “Ravenous was a joint composition in the sense that Damon Albarn composed 60% of the tracks and I did the rest.” It might sound like it wouldn’t work, but the sweeping scores of traditionalist Nyman and the eclectic experimentation of Albarn – something fans of Gorillaz will be well acquainted with – work perfectly to exemplify the core themes at the heart of the film.
- Modern Times
Charlie Chaplin was a ground-breaking artist, an Indy Film pioneer whose distrust of the studio system led him to found his own collective production company United Artists in pursuit of creative control. This wariness of leaving anyone else to implement his cinematic vision also led him to take up a number of musical instruments, and score his own films. In an age before speech, the extreme lengths Chaplin went to in order to craft an all-round product meant he was able to imbue his films with an emotive power other directors – especially in comedy – would struggle to get close to for years. While there are many great examples of the complex feelings Chaplin’s composures could conjure up, from The Kid to City Lights to The Great Dictator, but the most famous is deservedly Modern Times. In a film decrying the brutal exploitation and greed of industrialised life, the instrumental – which would go on to become a basis for the famous Nat King Cole song Smile – still manages to bring up feelings of hope and optimism, in spite of it all. It’s impossible to listen to without welling up – and really is there any beating that for impact?